Murphy: Chicken Fighting Over State Rights

No, not the kind you enjoyed as a kid with your friends in someone’s backyard pool. That only endangers bodily health. This the serious kind: one that endangers someone’s bottom line.

With the polarization of politics that’s become endemic of late, virtually every issue divides people into opposite camps. You’re either for something, or against it — no matter what the issue might be.

But the dynamic driving that partisanship isn’t always ideological. It’s more often about winning: saying whatever it takes to pass a bill, sway an election or win a lawsuit.

The result is that there’s not some political Grand Canyon dividing red and blue camps, liberals and conservatives. The so-called dividing line is actually a huge DMZ, a metaphorical no-man’s land that political camps regularly infiltrate as the occasion demands.

You know such an incursion has taken place when partisans on one side of an issue get so angry about the reality on the ground that they pull a 180 and switch sides.

Take the issue of states’ rights.

To listen to its most vocal proponents, the right of any state to enact laws consistent with what its residents might prefer is as sacred as the Holy Grail. The big, bad federal government has no business sticking its nose into the affairs of any of the 50 states, so the argument goes, especially when those advocates oppose some regulations embodied in a piece of congressional legislation or in the regulations set up to enforce the law.

However, when a state enacts a law that negatively impacts business elsewhere, suddenly it’s crucial that the big, bad federal government step in and overrule whatever state law is at issue, to preserve the “rights” of people in some other state to maintain their cash flow.

It’s all about getting to the desired result, no matter what kind of philosophical pretzel into which one side’s argument has to be twisted.

 

Hypocrisy Uncaged

Such is the case with a lawsuit brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by more than a dozen states this week to demand that the court block a California law requiring that any eggs sold there must come from facilities where the hens have additional space in their cages.

As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the states’ lawsuit alleged that the 2010 California law — passed as a result of farmers’ outcries over the impact of 2008’s Prop 2, which required that caged hens have enough space to fully extend their wings — has cost consumers nationwide “up to $350 million annually” because of higher egg prices since 2015.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018, is heading up the lawsuit, along with attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

The suit offered the argument that California’s requirements violate the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause and thus are pre-empted by federal law.

Whatever happened to, “Let’s let the people of [fill in state’s name] decide what’s best for them”?

In fact, as the newspaper reported, a federal Appellate Court panel rejected similar claims last year in a suit brought by a group of six states. In that case, the court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show that California’s law would affect more than just individual farmers.

Thus, this latest lawsuit referenced an economic analysis of the California law, noting that farmers in the Golden State produced about 5 billion eggs in 2012, with an additional 4 billion eggs imported from other states. According to the lawsuit, 30% of the imported eggs came from Iowa, with about 13% from Missouri.

According to USDA data, California’s egg production declined to 3.5 billion in 2016, whereas Missouri’s egg production increased by 60% over the last five years to a total of 3.2 billion eggs in 2016.

Hawley said in a statement that California’s egg law is a “clear attempt by big-government proponents to impose job-killing regulations” on other states.

(Um, isn’t asking the Supreme Court to overturn a state law the epitome of big government imposition?)

The plaintiffs cited a study from the University of Missouri on national egg prices, which concluded that the cost of eggs had increased between 1.8% and 5.1% since January 2015 because of California’s cage requirements, costing about $97 million annually for the lowest income quintile (20%) of U.S. households.

That may seem like a lot of money, but there are approximately 25 million households in the bottom one-fifth of the economic strata, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Divided among those households, that $97 million amounts to about four bucks per household per year, or about 33 cents a month — a penny a day, for all practical purposes.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a Constitutional crisis.

We’ll see which way SCOTUS rules, but at the end of the day, this lawsuit isn’t about the sanctity of federal preemption. It’s about producers in those 14 states losing access to a major market.

And taking a financial hit, no matter how it happens, definitely rises to the level of a crisis. 

 

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator

 

 

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